Against the Grain

6 minute read

I recently finished reading Against the Grain, by James C Scott, a fascinating look back at the relationship between agriculture and states. Through the archaeological record, Scott offers perspective on what lies at the core of states — modern and ancient alike — and provides deeper insight into the true breadth of human experience.

The prevailing narrative, which Scott wishes to resist, is that humanity followed a natural course of evolution leading us out of hunting and gathering, towards sedentism, agriculture, and then civilization. The historical record suggests a more complicated path, wherein hunting and gathering were not necessarily synonymous with nomadism, where agriculture was occasionally practiced whilst moving, and agricultural units and cities arose without giving way to states. As much as 4,000 years went by after discovering agriculture without any states arising. If agriculture was clearly superior to hunting and gathering, why wouldn't everyone have jumped on the bandwagon soon after its discovery?

The reasons include the fact that hunting and gathering yielded more calories relative to effort, was more flexible, and offered more varied nutrition. Early on, it seemed that agriculture only picked up as a complement to hunting and gathering, in areas where it was extremely convenient and productive, such as the flood plains of the Fertile Crescent.

Agriculture also represented a new concentration of a subset of animal and plant species in a fixed location. This was a favorable context for parasites to prey on. Zoonotic diseases, plant diseases, and human threats in the form of raiding group, or emerging states made the lives of early agriculturists even more onerous.

Agriculture as a necessary condition for statehood

While agriculture does not necessarily give way to states, it is a necessary condition for states to arise — as is the concentration of people. A theory is that aridification of Mesopotamia resulted in a scarcer hunting and gathering environment, and a concentration of populations along riverways. The concentration of people and arable land helps states to grow, control a population and collect taxes. Rivers facilitate trade, which also helps states to transport people, tax bounties, construction materials and other out-of-state goods. Scott defines a state as possessing a mix of the following criteria:

  • Responsible to a leader, or a set of rules
  • A specialized strata dedicated to planning and collecting taxes
  • An army
  • Defensive walls
  • A monumental ritual center
  • And most importantly, grain

Grain seems to have been a necessary condition for states to arise. This is observed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and the Yellow River: they all ran on wheat, barley, or millet. The question is why?

Scott invites us to imagine the role of a tax collector, from whose perspective these crops are most convenient as they are:

  • visible — they grow above ground
  • fungible — they can be divided easily into sub-units, and even used as currency
  • predictable — the harvest occurs at the same time
  • assessable — the harvest can be calculated based on arable land
  • storable — grains keep relatively well
  • transportable — they are relatively easy to move

Population control

Hunting and gathering remained a credible and attractive alternative for agriculturists for most of history, until more recent times. Especially early on, when states were fragile, and rose and fell in the span of humans' short lifetimes, it was possible for the same person to go in and out of agriculture over the course of their existence.

Walls of early states were probably designed to keep people out as much they were designed to keep people in. Working for, and being taxed by an early state was extremely difficult, as was the other labor required by early states. I found this quote striking, as it hints to ways in which out societies are still similarly structured:

Quarrying, mining, galley oaring, road building, logging, canal digging, and other menial tasks may have been, even in more contemporary times, the sort of work performed by convicts, indentured laborers, or a desperate proletariat. It’s the sort of work away from the domus that “free” men — including peasants — shun.

Performing the extraneous work of states, and sustaining its elites and tax collectors required an amount of work which no one willingly submitted to, which perhaps helps explain why 3 / 4 of the world before 1600 lived in some form of servitude, including:

  • Corvée
  • Forced delivery of grain
  • Debt bondage
  • Serfdom
  • Communal bondage
  • Tribute
  • Slavery

For Scott, far from a black and white matter, servitude is a spectrum on which even a desperate proletariat can be placed, putting our current societal agreements in uncomfortable perspective.

Labor being the fuel of states, it is not surprising to see them engage in wars, raids, and slave trade with remote groups of humans in order to maintain their population and grow their tax base.


Scott uses this term tongue firmly in cheek, with a fair deal of irony, to show that they were perhaps better off, and smarter than the residents of early states. I'll use the term in the same spirit here.

Until the advent of modern nation-states, most lived as hunter-gatherers. States, hemmed in by their dependence on an agricultural core, were the minority on earth.

Barbarians had a parasitic relationship with grain cores, and as such, competed with states. Scott claims that barbarians were in fact the single most limiting factor on the expansion of states.

Some groups such as Huns, Goths, or Mongols have their own names which history remembers. This naming betrays the very state-centric nature of their perception by painting them as a cohesive unit, when in reality they were disparate groups banding together temporarily and opportunistically.

The primary advantage of barbarians was their decentralized and mobile nature. This is especially true as they relate to states which are by nature centralized and group all their resources in one place. Being so mobile, barbarians could strike without warning, plunder, and leave, with no clear target to retaliate against. Wise barbarians were careful not to plunder with abandon, as they would endeavor not to kill the goose laying the golden eggs. This dynamic often evolved into a protection racket, which mirrored that of states. Some states and barbarians paid allegiance to states, promising not to invade, in exchange for significant sums — up to a third of a state’s tax base, in some examples. The Romans did this with the Celts, the Goths and the Huns.

When barbarians really got the upper hand, they occasionally took over the state apparatus, as did the Mongols. In other circumstances, states hired barbarians as mercenaries to do their bidding. This apparently happened with Cesar and the Gauls.

Trade volume grew tremendously over time, which also represented an important opportunity for barbarians. Being at ease inhabiting the spaces between sedentary states, it was easier for them to control trade routes and establish yet another protection racket, or become merchants themselves.

It's difficult not to draw a sinister conclusion, and a sad appraisal of human nature throughout this book. In one sense, it can be framed as a history of domestication. Mankind domesticated fire, helping us protect ourselves, also reshape our environment (controlled burns), hunt, sanitize, and cook. Man then domesticated various animal and plant species. The pursuit of the path of least resistance pushed us to dominate those species, and shape them for our convenience, but the author points out the two-way nature of this domestication:

In the final analysis, the Nuer eat (trade, barter, and tan the skin of) their cattle. The final disposition is not in doubt. But this overlooks the fact that while it lives, the potato and the cow are the objects of demanding a solicitous routine that caters to their well-being and safety.

We can meditate on this two-way relationship, and question its limits, but the domestication of men by men is much less questionable. With the planning of states' tax bases, and their constant attempts to conquer not so much land, but rather other humans, it's not a stretch to view the relationship between a state and its workforce as one of domestication, especially when considering how much of this labor was performed in some degree bondage.

Barbarians were a part of this ecosystem as well, as they occasionally captured and sold neighboring groups, or let themselves be hired as the armies of states. Their harassment of states was nothing more but a search for the path of least resistance — just as states did. The final image is one of a dog-eat-dog word, with various groups vying for domination, attempting to escape a just effort for their own subsistence.

Though this conclusion may seem dark, the main takeaway of this book for me (and a more optimistic one at that) is the invitation to reconsider our societal origins, prompting us to imagine a way of life that involves less drudgery, less centralization, less subjugation, and a fuller communion with nature, which this wistful closing quote from Scott embodies well:

I am tempted to see the late Neolithic revolution, for all its contributions to large-scale societies, as something of a deskilling. If this is a too bleak view of a breakthrough credited with making civilization possible, let us at least say that it represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural word, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life.